2015 Baseball Preview

Opening Day is less than two weeks away, which means we shouldn’t expect more than two or three pitchers to tear elbow ligaments before the season starts. That kind of confidence makes a season preview less of a fool’s errand by the day.

This year, I’m using the same data I compiled to list the 100 best players in the game to guess how well teams will perform this year. In case you need a refresher, I took a stab at each player’s 2015 WAR with a formula that weighted his 2014 WAR four times, his 2013 WAR twice, and his 2012 WAR once, then adjusted based on a standard aging curve and added or subtracted as much as one win based on subjective assessments of expected health and how well past WAR may reflect his current skills.

By adding every position player’s and starting pitcher’s projected WAR and a 51-win adjustment to balance the league to an 81-win average (it’s not unreasonable that a team full of replacement players might go 51-111, though most experts estimate a few wins worse than that), I came up with a baseline for each team’s ability. I then added or subtracted as many as three wins based on perceived quality of each team’s relief pitching and as many as two wins based on my estimate of the value the manager might add or subtract and formulated my official projection.

Only the Rockies got a full three-win adjustment, docked for their putrid bullpen (as if their rotation weren’t bad enough). The Indians, Giants, and Cubs fared the best here, each getting positive adjustments for both their relievers and their skippers.

Let’s look at team projections by division, starting with the National League:

NL East
1. Washington
2. Miami
3. New York
4. Atlanta
5. Philadelphia

If everything that can go wrong for the Nationals goes wrong, they might only win the division by five games. They might not even have the best record in baseball. My system is inherently conservative in that it starts every team with 51 wins and limits the number of players who can contribute more WAR, ignoring likely sub-replacement-level performances altogether. As a result, teams may be bunched together in the middle a bit too much. No AL team wins more than 89 games. No team wins more than 92 games. Except the Nats, who win 101. With a negative-two-win adjustment for their awful manager.

The Marlins project to contend for a Wild Card spot, even with “only” three wins from Jose Fernandez. 13+ WAR from their outfielders certainly help. I have the Mets at 77 wins, but if Matt Harvey is healthy and dominant again and the bullpen is even average, they could be a better-than-average team. Both of those teams’ playoff hopes hinge on taking advantage of their games against Atlanta and Philly to offset their games against Washington.

The Phillies, with 66 wins, look like the worst team in the league. I’m sure this is an optimistic projection.

NL Central
1. St. Louis
2. Pittsburgh (WC1)
3. Chicago
4. Milwaukee
5. Cincinnati

It doesn’t feel right saying this, but this might be the strongest division in baseball in 2015. The Cards are a force as usual, with Jason Heyward stepping in as their best player, possibly making an MVP push under a coaching staff that has made stars out of so many scrubs.

The Pirates are solid all over the field, projecting for more than one WAR out of every offensive position. If Gerrit Cole emerges as an ace and they get anything out of the back end of the rotation, they could contend for the division.

The Cubs may suffer from my prediction’s ignorance of minor league numbers. My system gives a total of three WAR to Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez, mostly in the form of subjective bonuses. It’s entirely possible that they’ll all undergo growing pains and the Cubs will be bad for one more year, but it’s also possible that Bryant hits like he has this spring and the Epstein-Maddon dynasty in Chicago begins now.

I see the Brewers and Reds winning 81 and 80 games, respectively, and both are capable of more. More likely, injuries will drag down one of the non-Cardinal teams in this division and they’ll struggle to win 70 games, but they all have the pieces to make a run at 90.

NL West
1. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco (WC2)
3. San Diego
4. Colorado
5. Arizona

I’ve seen it posited that the Dodgers are the equal of the Nationals, poised for a 100-win season. While I see them winning the division as usual, I don’t see the same magic I saw a few years ago. Even if he hadn’t been traded, the promise of a 40-40 season from Matt Kemp has gone the way of the 300-game-winner. Hanley Ramirez is back on the other coast. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and newcomers Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick are all over 30 and unikely to put up another peak season. While there’s so much to love about Kershaw and Puig, the pitching could lack depth if Hyun-jin Ryu’s injury is serious, and this isn’t a team that’s going to score 850 runs. They’re good, but vulnerable.

I’m always surprised by the Giants’ success, as the whole seems to much greater than its parts. This year, I’m throwing them a two-win bonus for Bruce Bochy and a third for a solid bullpen, bringing their otherwise-average roster to 85 wins, within two of the Dodgers. This includes aggressive projections for the injured Hunter Pence (3.2 WAR), Brandon Crawford (2.5), and Joe Panik (2.0), but it’s appropriately conservative with the rotation, not expecting as many as two WAR from anyone but Bumgarner.

Despite all the Padres’ upgrades, I don’t quite buy them as a contender, as their rotation could be shaky and their outfield defense looks atrocious. I see Justin Upton topping 3 WAR, but no other position player contributing more than 2.5. They’re still better than the Rockies, who have no pitching, and the Diamondbacks, who don’t have much of anything beyond Paul Goldschmidt.

AL East
1. Baltimore
2. Boston (WC2)
3. New York
4. Toronto
5. Tampa Bay

This division is just impossible to project. The Orioles lost their best reliever, their best home run hitter, and their former face-of-the-franchise leadoff man, and failed to bolster their rotation. Still, they should get major steps forward from Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis if they’re healthy. With a little Showalter magic, I see 87 wins and a hard-fought division title.

The Red Sox are trying to win with depth, which my system may not fully appreciate, since it doesn’t dock other teams who are more likely to see negative WAR from injury replacements and other role players. The Sox seem to have multiple good players ready to play every position, which is enviable on the surface, but it will put John Farrell in a difficult place trying to find plate appearances for so many borderline stars. The rotation is deep and good enough to win games if they’re scoring a lot of runs, but there will be pressure on the gloves of Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval with all these ground-ball pitchers on the mound. The bullpen could struggle too if Koji Uehara isn’t healthy and effective. This could be another 100-win juggernaut or another 70-win bust. I’ll take the middle road and predict 85 wins, just enough to steal the last playoff spot.

The Yankees have the division’s best pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, but their lineup is untested in the middle infield and elderly everywhere else. If Brett Gardiner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann bounce back with big seasons and Michael Pineda gives them anything, they’re contenders. If the luck they’ve had with injury replacements these past two years wears off, they could be ticketed for the basement.

I might have picked the Blue Jays to win the division before Marcus Stroman got hurt. Now I see 80 wins. That seems harsh, but they’re asking a lot of two old pitchers and a bunch of young ones and hoping Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin deliver the goods which which they surprised A’s and Pirates fans over the past two years.

The Rays might be good again. I’m not convinced.

AL Central
1. Cleveland
2. Detroit
3. Kansas City
4. Chicago
5. Minnesota

Without the relief pitching and managerial adjustments, the Tigers take another division crown, but isn’t that the story of the 2010s Tigers? Cleveland has a far better manager in Terry Francona and a solid bullpen, enough to vault them to 87 wins, while the Tigers project a fraction of a win behind the Red Sox for the last playoff spot. This may be the last year of Detroit’s championship window, so don’t be surprised if they make a major splash at the trade deadline and claim one more crown.

Kansas City needs to find a lot of the magic they had last year, whether that means repeat performances from Lorenzo Cain and Sal Perez or resurgence from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. They didn’t get better in the offseason, but Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy might emerge as the aces the Royals need to win their first division title since before either was born.

Chicago filled a lot of holes, but a few remain, including at least one outfield spot and most of the bullpen. The Twins, despite an awful rotation, aren’t a terrible team, projecting for 76 wins.

AL West
1. Anaheim
2. Seattle (WC1)
3. Oakland
4. Houston
5. Texas

I was surprised to see the Angels with the best projected record (89-73) in the American League, but when everyone’s bunched together, it helps to have a 10-win player in the fold. Without Trout, they’re a below-average team. With him, they’re the best in the league. How very un-baseball.

Seattle is a real contender this year, combining the thump of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager with the wizardry of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. What separates this team from prior iterations is a little depth, with Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino projected for at least two wins and James Paxton primed to join that core.

Like Boston, Oakland’s depth might be missed here, but I don’t see how they find enough wins on this post-Donaldson, post-Moss roster to make the playoffs again. Houston (77 projected wins) is getting better. Texas (74) isn’t.

Predicting short-series results seven months in advance is even more foolish than the preceding exercise, but that’s what I’m here for, right?

Pirates over Giants
Mariners over Red Sox

Nationals over Pirates
Cardinals over Dodgers
Mariners over Angels
Orioles over Indians

Nationals over Cardinals
Orioles over Mariners

Nationals over Orioles, four to negative twelve.

Posted in Red Sox, Orioles, Predictions, Nationals, Indians, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers | 3 Comments

Whatever Happened to the Great AL Shortstop?

It looks like the Golden Era for shortstops is over.

From 1984 to 1996, there was little debate about who should start the All-Star Game at shortstop for the American League.  Cal Ripken, Jr. was always healthy, always playing, and often worthy of the start.  Even when the numbers suggested someone else was more worthy, the fans voted for Cal.

By the time Ripken hung up his cleats, four superstar shortstops were emerging in the AL.  Over the next nine seasons, Miguel Tejada started one All-Star Game and played in two more.  Nomar Garciaparra started one and played in four more.  Alex Rodriguez started four games and played in the other five.  Derek Jeter started the other three games and played in three more.  As newspaper ink gave way to virtual ink, perhaps more was virtually spilled on the shortstop revolution than on any other baseball topic.  In the greatest era for offense since the early 1930s, if not ever, teams no longer sought out the good-glove, no-bat shortstop if a slugger was available who could stand between second and third for eight or nine innings without embarrassing himself.

By 2006, Rodriguez was a third baseman, Garciaparra was in the National League, and Tejada was a defensive liability having his last great offensive season.  Jeter, meanwhile, was the captain of the team that had played in six of the last ten World Series and was enjoying a bit of a comeback.  There was no logical choice but Jeter to start that year’s All-Star Game.  Over the next eight years, if Jeter was remotely healthy, he started the midsummer classic. Asdrubal Cabrera and JJ Hardy each stole one when Jeter was out with a long-term injury, but even when Jeter was a shadow of him former self, the fans voted him in for old times’ sake.

2015 begins the post-Jeter era, when the starting All-Star shortstop vote may again be something like a meritocracy.  Aftter decades of superstar shortstops dominating the ballot, there’s no preordained choice this year.  When I compiled my list of the 100 best players in baseball earlier this week, five National League shortstops were features, but no AL shortstop made the list.  I awarded four of them honorable mentions, each arguably worthy of a spot toward the end of the list, but none stood out from the pack.  Here are several shortstops who might convince voters they deserve the starting nod in 2015:

Elvis Andrus, Rangers – This list is ordered by alphabet, not by likelihood. Andrus had the worst season of his career in terms of batting average, on-base percentage, stolen base success rate, and Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average in 2015. That said, he’s only 26, and if the Rangers still believe in him despite the glut of middle infielders at their disposal, it’s possible that he bounces back to the 4-WAR form he displayed at 22, 23, and 24, excelling in all facets of the game.

Erick Aybar, Angels – Aybar was probably the best shortstop in the AL in 2014, earning 4.1 WAR as a key component of the AL’s best team.  At 31, he should still be a solid player in ’15, but he’s not a star on Tejada’s level, let alone Jeter’s.

Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox – At the midpoint last season, Bogaerts had a case as the league’s best shortstop.  From there, the wheels fell off.  The Red Sox signed Stephen Drew, moved Bogaerts to third base, and he stopped hitting and fielding for a hellacious stretch.  It may take a few years before the 22-year-old emerges as a star, but it’s also possible that he breaks out this year and starts a Ripken-like run of ASG starts.

Alcides Escobar, Royals – Escobar always had the defensive reputation.  Last year, he added some offense, hitting .285 with 31 steals and leading off throughout the Royals’ run to Game Seven of the World Series.  If nothing else, he certainly got the attention of some fans who will look for a post-Jeter hole to punch on their ballots.

JJ Hardy, Orioles – The best shortstop in the AL this year is probably playing about forty feet to Hardy’s right.  While Manny Machado hones his bat as a third baseman, the Orioles will settle for another guy who might be the league’s best shortstop.  Hardy is a league-average hitter, but his glove has been great enough than he’s been worth over three wins each of the last four seasons, something no other AL shortstop can claim.

Jed Lowrie, Astros – Of all these choices, Lowrie is the closest to the Jeter/Garciaparra/Tejada mold. He’s slugged .526 and he’s topped 15 homers twice despite never playing as many as 100 games in a season until 2013, but he’s never been mistaken for Rey Ordonez with the leather. If he’s healthy, he could put up the offensive numbers All-Star voters like, though it’s unlikely he’ll match these other guys from a value standpoint.

Alexei Ramirez, White Sox – Ramirez may be the most well-rounded shortstop in the league, with some power (99 career home runs), decent batting averages (.277 career), big-league speed (118 steals) and an elite glove. On the flip side, he can’t draw a walk, so if he hits .260 instead of .280, he’s a league-average player.

Jose Reyes, Blue Jays – Reyes is probably the most accomplished shortstop in the league.  Still just 31, Reyes has had separate seasons in which he batted .337, stole 78 bases, hit 19 triples, and accumulated 5.8 WAR. If he approaches some of those marks again this year, he’s probably an All-Star.

Danny Santana, Twins – Again, the alphabet, but Santana might just be my pick.  In just 101 games in 2014, split between shortstop and centerfield, the 24-year-old Santana was worth an impressive 3.9 WAR, hitting .319 and stealing 20 bases.  Reyes may be the past champ, Aybar was probably the best last year, Bogaerts may have the best future, but Santana feels like the AL’s best shortstop in 2015.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. The next AL All-Star shortstop could be a young player like Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller, Marcus Semien, or even Jeter’s replacement, Didi Gregorius.  And if no one emerges as the perpetually obvious choice, well, sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised.

Posted in All-Star Game, Angels, Astros, Blue Jays, Orioles, Predictions, Rangers, Red Sox, Royals, Twins, White Sox | 1 Comment

2015 Top 100 Players

It’s that time of year. All the big-name free agents have signed somewhere. Pitchers are pitching. Catchers are catching. It’s time to write about baseball in 2015.

As a prelude to my 2015 season preview, I thought I’d take a stab at ranking the game’s best players. Why? Well, for one, this is the kind of thing I think about when I’m falling asleep, when I’m in the shower, and when I’m driving to work. Second, projecting how well players will play this year establishes a framework for predicting how well teams will play. And finally, one question has been nagging at me since Max Scherzer signed the biggest deal of the offseason: By how much are the Nationals the best team in baseball? A couple games? A bunch of games? (Nats fans [and Mariners fans] might want to skip the next one.) By a crazy, 2001 Mariners-type margin?

I thought I’d tackle this question by building something like a homemade ZIPS framework. I took every player I expect to get regular playing time this year, excluding relievers, who likely won’t accumulate enough value to crack the top 100, and recorded his age and WAR (per fangraphs) for each of the last three seasons. I created a raw WAR (sweet palindrome, eh?) figure based on the formula (2014 WAR * 4 + 2013 WAR * 2 + 2012 WAR)/7, then adjusted based on the player’s age. Age adjustments are based on work I did for this post, which uses historical data to place players somewhere along an aging curve where, for instance, a 24-year-old gets a 15.6% raise on his raw WAR and a 34-year-old takes a 14.5% cut.

I then added a subjective adjustment between -1 and 1 WAR, which could come as the result of one of several cases. For instance, Manny Machado is still 22. In 2012, he broke into the league with 1.3 WAR. In 2013, he broke out with 6.3. Last year, he missed most of the season with an injury and settled for 2.5 WAR. The age adjustment boosts his raw 3.4 to a projected 4.1. If he’s healthy this year, I expect him to play like he did in 2013, but recognizing that I know more about some players than others, I’d rather let objective data drive this discussion than speculate blindly. I gave him a modest .8-WAR positive adjustment.

On the flip side, a player like Justin Verlander, who’s clearly regressing faster than the average 31-year-old (7.1, 5.2, and 3.3 WAR since ’12) benefits disproportionately from a framework that sees him bouncing back up to 4.1 WAR, so I docked him the full point. I’ll explain some of the subjective adjustments as I roll through the rankings.

My system is admittedly imperfect, as it sells short several types of players.  Those who broke out last year after low-value prior seasons are still weighed down by prior years (in which many of them got very few PA or IP).  Second-year players like Mookie Betts and Jorge Soler are projected only based on a partial season’s worth of value and a subjective adjustment.  For that reason, my list is skewed toward players in their primes (sorry, Cubs).

Enough babble. Let’s rank these dudes.

First, some honorable mentions. This includes everyone projected at 3.1 wins, a tenth of a win behind #100, which is a virtual tie, and a few players between 2.5 and 3 who are notable for one reason or another.

Honorable mention pitchers included those on the rise, like Gerrit Cole, Drew Hutchison, and Michael Wacha, established stars like Hisashi Iwakuma, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner, whom I could see finishing closer to 10th than 100th this year, and former aces like Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee.

Honorable mention position players also ranged from pre-prime- Danny Santana, AJ Pollock, Leonys Martin, Kevin Kiermaier, Mookie Betts, and George Springer- to post-prime- Joe Mauer, JJ Hardy, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Erick Aybar, and Brett Gardner- with guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Santana, Josh Reddick, and the intriguing Matt Wieters in between.

100. Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds – Last year’s most hyped NL rookie proved he could run like the Hall of Famer with the same name, but he’ll have to find ways to get on base and cut down on caught-stealings to add real value with his legs.  Even if he repeats his rookie campaign with no improvement, he’s probably a top-100 player.

99. Jose Fernandez, P, Marlins
98. Matt Harvey, P, Mets
– The race for second place in the NL East could hinge on how these two come back from Tommy John surgery.  Harvey was perhaps the best pitcher in the game when he went down in late summer, 2013, but with less than one season’s work on his resume, my system doesn’t like him as much as I do.   Like Harvey, Fernandez was one of the ten best pitchers in the game before his surgery.  He’s not due back until June or July, but if his arm is ready, he should be valuable enough over 15-20 starts to crack the top 100.  Harvey could be a top-20 guy.

97. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles – I’m not sure it’s a shortcoming of my system that it doesn’t know how to deal with Davis.  Does anyone?  He finally broke out with 6.8 WAR (aided by 53 home runs) at age 26, only to regress to .5 WAR at 27 (the suspension for amphetamines didn’t help).  He could easily be a top-25 guy again in 2015 or a guy looking for a job in 2016.

96. Doug Fister, P, Nationals
95. Gio Gonzalez, P, Nationals
– Here we go with the Nats.  These are the last two pitchers in their rotation, in some order.  Tanner Roark only misses this list because I docked him a few tenths for likely pitching out of the bullpen for most of 2015.  The other four teams in the NL East have a total of three pitchers ranked higher than the Nats’ fifth starter (though I expect big things from Harvey, if not Fernandez as well).  Baseball isn’t fair.

94. Neil Walker, 2B, Pirates – Cutch gets all the attention, but the Pirates are sneaky good all over the field.  If I believed in their pitching, I might pick them to win the Central.

93. Dallas Keuchel, P, Astros – Have the Astros arrived?  They have two players in my top 100 (as many as the A’s, Rays, or Brewers), and three more in the next 50.  Keuchel heads up a rotation that should be at least adequate this year.

92. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds – How quickly great players fade.  Three years ago, while I was shaming ESPN for asserting that Albert Pujols was still the best player in the game despite obvious signs of decline, I still ranked Votto third.  He played well in ’12 and ’13, but injuries kept him off the field for much of 2014 and he wasn’t a great player when he was healthy.  I hope I regret ranking Votto this low, but a lot of great, slugging 29-year-old first basemen are not great players at 31.  See Pujols, Albert.

91. Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays – Better than Votto?  My systems thinks so because it loves his consistency.  It hard to argue that a 28-year-old who was worth 3.2, 3.3, and 3.2 WAR the last three years won’t be worth something a little better than three wins this year.

90. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals –  A consistent force, Holliday’s shown some signs of decline in recent years, but still offers plenty of value at 35.  The Cardinals landed seven players on this list, more than any team besides the Nats.

89. Marcell Ozuna, CF, Marlins – Ichiro’s quest for 3,000 hits seems to be riding on the possibility that one of the Marlins’ outfielders gets injured, as all three are young and, if they can build on last season’s individual successes, among the 100 best players in the game.

88. Rick Porcello, P, Red Sox – Boston’s no-stars, no-scrubs approach will see Porcello leap from fringe fifth starter in Detroit to ace status in Boston in two years.

87. Jacob deGrom, P, Mets – I have no idea if deGrom is for real, but it was hard to keep last year’s NL Rookie of the Year off this list after a 3-WAR inaugural campaign.

86. Denard Span, CF, Nationals – The one Nat whose presence in the top 100 surprised me.  I knew Span could run, and that he uses the bunt about as well as anyone in the league, but he’s actually a good all-around player, with a .355 OBP last year and excellent defensive numbers in his past.

85. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays – Huge bat, not much else.  When the bat speed goes, it’s going to get ugly quickly for E5.  Here’s guessing the Jays get at least one more year of mashing.

84. Justin Upton, LF, Padres – I’m not sure what to do with the packed San Diego outfield, but Upton seems a safe bet for an everyday job.  Can he launch balls out of Petco?  If the Pads are serious about contending, he better be able to.

83. Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals – Ho hum, just another National among the top seven or eight guys at his position.

82. Hanley Ramirez, LF, Red Sox – I can see Ramirez struggling defensively with the Green Monster and American League pitching and beginning his descent into mediocrity. I can also see him freed from the demands of the shortstop position, taking aim at that same monster with his bat, and beginning a career renaissance.

81. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies – As damaging as pitching at Coors can be, I’d love to be a Rockies pitcher who only pitches on the road and gets Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and D.J. LeMahieu behind him every night. Nolan can hit a little too, and at 23, he may be on his way to superstardom.

80. Julio Teheran, P, Braves – An ace in the making, on a team that won’t get him many wins this year, even if he does achieve a career-high WAR, as I predict he will.

79. Zack Greinke, P, Dodgers – At just 31, Greinke’s been a head case, a runaway Cy Young winner, a FIP-beater, and a disappointment. In 2015, I’m guessing he’s just an excellent starter on an excellent team.

78. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Dodgers – I’m as surprised as you are. Kendrick was worth 4.6 WAR last year, and moves to the weakest division in the big leagues.

77. Jake Arrieta, P, Cubs – After struggling in Baltimore, Arrieta was a surprise breakout star in Chicago last year. He’s still only 28, and may be entering his prime on a team that’s almost ready to contend.

76. Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins – The AL’s worst team actually lands two players on this list and two honorable mentions. Dozier, who broke out in a big way in 2014, may be the list’s biggest surprise.

75. Hyun-Jin Ryu, P, Dodgers – I’m not sure I believe Ryu is the second-best pitcher on the Dodgers, but with Brandon McCarthy in the fold, I do believe they have the second-best rotation in the National League.

74. Jeff Samardzija, P, White Sox – The White Sox might not be much better than Shark’s Cubs were last year, but he’s bound to get a win before the All-Star break this time around if he pitches well at all.

73. Lance Lynn, P, Cardinals – Is Lynn a breakout candidate, or has he already broken out? Either way, he’s sandwiched between Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha in another solid Cardinals rotation.

72. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves – I’m of the belief that Simmons doesn’t have to hit at all to be among the game’s best shortstops, as his glove is once-in-a-generation. He didn’t hit much in 2014, but he’s hinted at the presence of a bat, and if he can find even a decent one, he’s Ozzie Smith.

71. James Shields, P, Padres – Shields has lived in the space between serviceable pitcher and ace for several years, and his struggles in the 2014 playoffs didn’t help move him toward acedom, but pitching half his games at Petco might make him feel like one.

70. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers – After looking a bit washed up toward the end of his Texas tenure, Kinsler rebounded with a 5.4-WAR season in 2014. Don’t expect another at age 32, but he’s still a very good player.

69. Josh Harrison, 3B/RF, Pirates – His positional versatility may be overrated, but Harrison can reach base, steal a base, and turn batted balls into outs. He’s immensely valuable at either position.

68. Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds – I’m not in the business of predicting breakouts, but he’s a breakout prediction: Mesoraco hits 30 homers and emerges as the Reds’ best player in 2015.

67. Johnny Cueto, P, Reds – Of course, there’s always this guy, who might have contended for the Cy Young in the non-Kershaw league last year. Fangraphs doesn’t love his low-strikeout version of run prevention, but he’s done it consistently for years now.

66. Christian Yelich, LF, Marlins – Another exciting young outfielder working in Miami. If they’re not a contender this year, expect the Marlins to be in the Wild Card chase by ’16.

65. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals – Among the game’s best and most popular players in 2012 and ’13, Molina took a step back last year, always a concern for a catcher, whose body takes about six three-hour beatings a week. Could he be finished as a top-100 guy?

64. David Wright, 3B, Mets – In this exercise before the 2012 season, I left Wright out of my top 100, citing an apparent early decline. Naturally, he bounced back with two of the best seasons of his career. At 32, I don’t see another 7-win year, but he should be top 100 if he’s healthy.

63. Salvador Perez, C, Royals – Last year, Perez looked like the best all-around catcher in the AL for much of the season, then looked completely washed up by late October, when he popped out to end the World Series. A winter off and a more reasonable workload in 2015 should restore him to the star he’s become.

62. Yordano Ventura, P, Royals – James Shields skipping town puts the Royals’ next true ace in position to make an opening-day start.

61. Sonny Gray, P, A’s – Feels like he should be higher than this, doesn’t it? He’s put up sunny raw numbers- 2.99 ERA, 3.29 FIP- but park adjustments cast a gray cloud over them (just 4.8 WAR in 283 big-league innings). He’s still only 25, and should be a force of nature for years to come.

60. Marcus Stroman, P, Blue Jays – Stroman was about the 300th guy I thought of when I built this list. I had no idea he was worth 3.3 WAR in just 130 innings in a hybrid role last year (his 2.84 FIP helped). At 23, he may already be the Jays’ best starter.

59. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Yankees – He’ll never recreate his 2011 season, but I predict a bit of a bounceback for Jacoby as he adjusts to his new surroundings in 2015.

58. Garrett Richards, P, Angels – With a full season of domination on his resume, my system would have liked Richards even more. The Angels would love to see him hold up through the playoffs this year.

57. Cole Hamels, P, Phillies – At 31, playing for perhaps the worst team in baseball, will Hamels show signs of decline this year? If so, he’ll be coming down from quite a peak.

56. Anibal Sanchez, P, Tigers – He might have been the best pitcher in the AL in 2013 before missing time with injuries in ’14. After letting one ace go, dealing a budding ace, and watching a third deteriorate, the Tigers could use a return to excellence from Sanchez.

55. Juan Lagares, CF, Mets – It seems that each year, someone new- Franklin Gutierrez, Peter Bourjos, and Jackie Bradley come to mind- emerges as the best defensive outfielder in the game, only to struggle with the bat and fade from view. Here’s guessing that Lagares hits enough to cement that reputation.

54. Russell Martin, C, Blue Jays – The key to the Blue Jays resurgence? Most recent World Series champs have had a superstar catcher- Posey, Molina, Posada… The Jays have built great rosters in recent years, but haven’t had a backstop like Martin.

53. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cardinals – “Sic” was sick with the glove in ’14, and while he may not be worth 5.4 WAR again this year, he won’t need to be to be among the game’s top five shortstops.

52. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals – The only player in the top 100 I gave the full 1-point subjective bonus. It feels like he hasn’t broken out yet, but he’s been one of the greatest 21-and-under players in baseball history. Here’s guessing he takes it to another level at 22 and this ranking looks like an insult.

51. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros – I doubt he’ll hit .341 or steal 56 bases again, but even .300 and 40, with doubles power and average second-base defense, should be good for 3-to-4 wins.

50. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays – The last time I ranked the 100 best players in the game, he was number one. I need to do this more often.

49. Todd Frazier, 3B, Reds – Frazier is quietly emerging as of the NL’s best hitters, and his fielding and baserunning numbers have been good as well.

48. Yan Gomes, C, Indians – WAR tends to underrate catchers, so the best catcher in the American League would probably be a little higher on a list with more subjective input.

47. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox – As a Sox fan, I have a bad feeling about the second half of Pedroia’s career, as I’m afraid his play-through-everything attitude will catch up to him soon. I suppose I should sit back and enjoy the best player on the team while he’s still a star.

46. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees – He looked like a Cy Young contender until he got hurt last year. There may not be a better pitcher in the AL East.

45. Starling Marte, LF, Pirates – Like the Marlins, the Pirates put three outfielders in this top 100. Gregory Polanco is closer to making it four for Pittsburgh than Ichiro is for Miami.

44. Chase Headley, 3B, Yankees – Headley signed for just over half of what Pablo Sandoval, who missed this list by 23 spots, got from the Red Sox. October chances are worth a few bucks if you take advantage.

43. Hunter Pence, RF, Giants – Easily the gangliest, least baseballplayerlike player on the list. He’s this good though.

42. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays – Like me, Bautista’s 34. Only one older player finished higher on the list.

41. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals – Can he continue his October breakout through the full regular season?

40. Adam Wainwright, P, Cardinals – He’s been the best non-Kershaw pitcher in the NL for most of Kershaw’s career. At 33, he’s probably on the decline, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll be bad in 2015.

39. Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals – At 27, he blossomed into a superstar overnight. At 28, he was more good-not-great until the NLDS. Who knows what he’ll do at 29?

38. Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals – Did you know Desmond had been worth 14 WAR over the past three seasons, almost three more wins than any other shortstop over that span?

37. Phil Hughes, P, Twins – In 2015, he stopped walking batters and became a Cy Young candidate. He wouldn’t have to be quite as good in ’15 to justify this ranking.

36. Jordan Zimmermann, P, Nationals – There are only 11 pitchers left on the list. We’re in the middle of the Nationals’ rotation.

35. Madison Bumgarner, P, Giants – If an underwhelming Giants team just won the World Series on the back of one pitcher, how is he just the 35th best player in the game? Baseball’s just that unpredictable. It actually took a strong subjective bonus (.6 points) to get Bumgarner this high, as park adjustments knock his numbers back to Earth. He’s just 25, though, and has proven he can handle tougher higher-leverage assignments than anything he’ll see in the regular season.

34. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves – Just one skill, but it’s a good one. Those homers might not drive in many runs in that Atlanta lineup this year, though.

33. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles – He’s overrated by Gold Glove voters, but he’s undeniably one of the best players on a team that keeps surprising us.

32. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers – The oldest player on this list (35), one of the six greatest third basemen of all time, and an ageless marvel we’re all blessed to have seen play.

31. Jon Lester, P, Cubs – Lester’s arrival in Chicago has elicited much hyperbole. The Cubs aren’t contenders yet. They’ve got one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers in the game, but when Bryant, Soler, and Baez are scoring runs in droves, he’ll be in his mid-thirties, hoping for another chance at October glory.

30. Jose Quintana, P, White Sox – Samardzija and Sale will get all the ink in Chicago this year, but the Pale Hose have another starter who had a 2.81 FIP last year. If he can keep home runs down in 2015 like he did in ’14, he’s the #2 starter in what might be the AL’s best rotation.

29. Stephen Strasburg, P, Nationals – Like Harper, it doesn’t really feel like Strasburg has “arrived”, but he’s been one of the game’s best pitchers over the last three years and could finally be Cy Young-worthy in 2015.

28. Yu Darvish, P, Rangers – Last season’s injury sidetracked what looked like it might be Darvish’s first Cy Young season. If he’s healthy, he’ll strike batters out like no one else in the AL.

27. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles – There’s no ceiling to Machado’s talent. He’s 22, he’s already had a 6-win season, he should keep growing as a hitter, and he’s capable of playing shortstop.

26. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners – Another quietly budding superstar, Seager can pop a homer (25 last year), draw a walk (52), and pick it at the hot corner (12.9 fielding runs above average).

25. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs – At 25, Rizzo is the elder statesman in the Cubs lineup, fully formed and ready to guide the young bats toward October.

24. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies – One of the great tragedies of modern baseball is that perhaps its second most talented player has only played as many as 130 games once since 2010. If he’s healthy, he’s the MVP frontrunner.

23. Alex Gordon, LF, Royals – His WAR depends a little heavily on defense for some fans’ tastes, but he hits, he runs the bases, and he’s reinventing the limits of left field defense. Now he’s even doing it for a playoff team.

22. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks – Enough of these jacks-of-all-trades. Golschmidt is a slugger in the classic model, and he should be healthy and ready to terrorize the National League again in 2015.

21. Ben Zobrist, 2B/Util, A’s – The A’s traded away most of their talent this offseason, only to reel in a utility man in late winter who will immediately be their best player.

20. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers – I thought Lucroy was the most valuable player in the NL last season. It’s hard to imagine him being as good again, but this ranking doesn’t presume that he will be.

19. Jose Abreu, DH, White Sox – Adam LaRoche’s arrival moves Abreu to DH this year, stripping a small portion of his value, but there’s no reason to believe the AL’s best hitter in ’14 won’t rake again in his second full year in the bigs.

18. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians – Was his 2014 breakout for real? He’s no Mike Trout, but he’s within a few ticks of Trout’s ability in every facet of the game.

17. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners – After Trout and Cabrera, Cano has been the most valuable player in the AL over the last three seasons. At 32, he looks like he may have a few more great years left.

16. David Price, P, Tigers – Price will be under some pressure to replace several other aces as the team transitions from knowing the AL Central is theirs and focusing on the playoffs to striving to win a tough division.

15. Jason Heyward, RF, Cardinals – There’s no replacing the promise that was Oscar Taveras in St. Louis, but the Cards went out and got one of the game’s best defensive outfielders and a guy with the potential to be an elite bat as well.

14. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers – He’s obviously in decline, but Cabrera should still be one of the league’s best hitters once he’s fully healthy again.

13. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers – If he can avoid moments of disconnection from the game, like most of last September, Puig could win his first of multiple MVPs in 2015.

12. Max Scherzer, P, Nationals – All the drama in Washington’s regular season should revolve around Matt Williams. Will he start Scherzer, Strasburg, or Zimmermann on opening day? Will he keep punishing Harper for not running into walls? Will he give way to a competent manager before the postseason?

11. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers – Is Gomez the best athlete in MLB? He steals bases (111 the last three years), crushes baseballs (66 homers), and tracks down fly balls hit anywhere (40.6 fielding runs above average).

10. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals – There you have it. Ten of the 100 best players in baseball right now play in Washington. Who would have guessed Rendon would be a top-ten guy before Harper would?

9. Corey Kluber, P, Indians – Perhaps if Kluber hadn’t gotten his due as AL Cy Young in 2014, he’d be hungrier in ’15. Regardless, he should pitch meaningful games in August and September this year, headlining a strong, young rotation that could lead the Tribe to the postseason.

8. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays – Donaldson came out of nowhere, and Billy Beane’s willingness to trade him for what looked like less makes me wonder if he’s primed to fade back into obscurity, but the numbers say he’s the best infielder in the game, and these projections are all about the numbers.

7. Chris Sale, P, White Sox – Even if his skinny body leads him to the Pedro Martinez ending, Sale is already maybe the best pitcher in the AL and still on the rise at age 25.

6. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins – If he comes back strong after getting hit in the face with a pitch last fall, Stanton should pick up where he left off, whacking 40 homers and playing solid defense in right field.

5. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners – Will this be another year in which fans think Hernandez deserves the Cy Young but he doesn’t win it, or another year in which he wins it, but fans think someone else should have won?

4. Buster Posey, C, Giants – When future generations look back and wonder how the Giants won three World Series in five years, pitching will probably be the first answer, but Posey will be the lone superstar who played for San Francisco throughout.

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates – McCutchen is not only the game’s premier spokesman right now, he’s also one of its most consistently great players, playing at an MVP level each of the last three seasons.

2. Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers – The Mike Trout of pitching. He’s the best and no one else is particularly close.

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels – Trout seems to have been downgraded from “Willie Mays wishes he could have had the career Trout’s about to have” to “hopefully Al Kaline, maybe even Mickey Mantle”. Still, even after bulking up and losing some of his defensive edge and developing a bit of a strikeout problem, Trout is the best player in the game by so much that I docked him .7 points in the subjective adjustment and he still topped Kershaw’s projection by 2.5 wins.

There you have it. It would appear that there’s quite a gap between the Nats and the field. I’ll address that further in my next post. For now, tell me why I’m a fool for ranking somebody somewhere.

Posted in Cardinals, Nationals, Predictions | 4 Comments

The Three Larry Walkers

I just posted this one, the first in a series aimed at winning some Hall of Fame votes for Larry Walker, at High Heat Stats. I’ll keep you posted as my crack team of Walker-supporters makes our year-long push.

Is any other great baseball player’s Hall of Fame case met with less objective thought than Larry Walker’s?

In 1997, Walker hit .366/.452/.720. He hit 49 home runs and 46 doubles, stole 33 bases, played his typical stellar rightfield defense, and, for good measure, was hit by 14 pitches. Five other times, Walker’s on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) topped 1.000, something no player in either league accomplished in 2014.

As is the case with Barry Bonds’s otherworldly 2001-2004 seasons, any observer’s instinct upon viewing Walker’s monstrous numbers should be to consider context. Balls were flying around, and out of, ballparks at an alarming rate in 1997, and Coors Field, where Walker played half his games, was the primary culprit. To judge Walker against his contemporaries or the greats of yesterday based on the raw numbers cited above would be irresponsible.

Sadly, though, many observers, including those charged with populating the Hall of Fame, take an even less responsible tact, “considering context” by wiping the page clean, as if Rocky Mountain air so profoundly impacts a hitter’s ability to get on base that anyone could have accomplished what Walker did that year.

In truth, no National Leaguer in 1997 matched Walker in home runs, total bases, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage, all of which reflect, to some extent, Walker’s surroundings. Neither, though, did anyone match Walker’s WAR (9.8, per baseball-reference), a figure adjusted for the effects of era and park advantages. Some great hitters have played for the Rockies in their 20+ years. Here are the top OPS marks in Rockies history:

1.172, Larry Walker, 1997

1.168, Larry Walker, 1999

1.162, Todd Helton, 2000

1.116, Todd Helton, 2001

1.111, Larry Walker, 2001

1.075, Larry Walker, 1998

Sure, Walker took advantage of the comforts of Coors in a way that Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose never got to do. But isn’t it illustrative that he put up better numbers there (.381/.462/.710) than any player in team history?

WAR Batting Runs (Rbat) are park-adjusted. Walker accumulated 420 Rbat in his career, more than Hall of Fame rightfielders like Clemente (377), Tony Gwynn (403), or Andre Dawson (234). Walker could also run (40 WAR Baserunning Runs) and field (94 WAR Fielding Runs, more than enough to offset the 75 runs he’s docked for playing right field). Adam’s Hall of Stats, which combines WAR and WAA, both park- and era-adjusted, gives Walker a Hall Rating of 150, seventh all time among rightfielders, right between Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson.

What fans and Hall voters tend to neglect is that Walker was a great hitter, and a great all-around player, for six seasons in Montreal (Expos Booder) prior to becoming Rockies Booger, and parts of two seasons in St. Louis (Cardinals Booger) at the end of his career. Let’s separate Walker’s career into three eras based on the team he played for and find comparable players to the three Larry Walkers (or are they Larrys Walker?).

Expos Booger

From 1989 through 1994, Walker kept his passport ready, playing his home games in his native Canada and his road games in the states. During these formative years, Walker batted .281/.356/.509, culminating in a breakout year in which the Expos had the league’s best record at the time of the strike and Walker finished eleventh in NL MVP voting.

Raw comps: In terms of raw numbers, Walker’s age 22 to 27 seasons rival those of two of history’s great rightfielders. Al Kaline, one of the game’s great young players, had an .876 OPS over that age range, while Reggie Jackson‘s was .871 in a period that ended two years into the Athletics’ title threepeat. Both narrowly topped Walker’s .865, while Walker’s 52 Fielding Runs fall right between Kaline’s 89 and Reggie’s 37.

Adjusted comps: Kaline and Jackson both played more frequently than Walker in their age 22 to 27 seasons, so WAR gives them more credit for accumulated accomplishments. If we’re looking for an adjusted comp, Joe Morgan precisely matched Walker’s 81 Batting Runs, and earned 21.5 WAR, to Walker’s 21.2. This predates Morgan’s MVP years with Cincinnati, but it speaks to the quality of Walker’s all-around game that his early years are comparable to those of one of the game’s most rounded players. If you’re looking for an outfield comp, Roberto Clemente fell short of Walker’s Batting Runs (49), but used his lethal arm to match Walker’s WAR (22.8). Walker didn’t need Coors Field to look like an all-time great.

Rockies Booger

Walker’s Colorado years, during which he was 28 to 37 years old, correspond well with his prime. This is slightly later than the typical player’s prime, but the typical player doesn’t spend his youth dreaming of a career as an NHL goalie. After a slightly late start, Walker joined the ranks of the game’s stars at age 25 in 1992, and maintained that status well into his thirties.

Raw comps: Almost no one has done what Larry Walker did from ages 28 to 37. He batted .334/.426/.618 for a decade, still playing above-average defense and finding time to steal 126 bases. The closest comp I could find was Stan Musial, whose 1.008 OPS from 28 to 37 was .036 points lower, but who kept it up for almost 1,800 more plate appearances. Jimmie Foxx had three 1.000 OPS seasons over that span (Walker had six), but stumbled toward the end of his career and finished the span with a .991 OPS. If you’re looking for better raw numbers than what Walker did in Colorado, you’re in Ruth/Williams territory.

Adjusted comps: Again, Walker had some trouble staying on the field in his late prime, averaging just under 500 plate appearances per season, and Coors Field was obviously more friendly to him than Sportsman’s Park was to Musial. From a value standpoint, Walker’s Rockie years were more akin to those of Mickey Mantle, who earned more Rbat (350 to 313), but fewer WAR (48.2 to 42.4). Willie McCovey, who earned 335 Rbat and 42.6 WAR, is in similar territory.

Cardinals Booger

It comes in a very small sample, but Walker’s final season-and-a-half in St. Louis tells us a lot about what he might have accomplished had he never played in Denver. He batted .286/.387/.521, joining a team loaded with should-be future Hall-of-Famers on the ride to two NLCS and a World Series.

Raw comps: It’s harder than you think to find someone with a .908 OPS at ages 37 and 38, in any era, in any park. Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds were better. Basically everyone else was worse. I’m digging way back to find a comp in Honus Wagner, whose .909 OPS was almost identical to Walker’s. If you’re uncomfortable with the advantage Walker had playing in a hitter’s era, remember that he faced fresh-armed relievers throwing 98 miles per hour in the eighth inning in 2004 and 2005, while Wagner played in an all-white league when tiring starters routinely completed what they started. If you want an outfield comp, you might not do much better than Ty Cobb and his .947 OPS.

Adjusted comps: Busch Stadium didn’t work to Walker’s advantage like Coors did, but he earned fewer WAR (3.2) over his last two seasons because he only came to the plate 545 times and wasn’t the runner or fielder he’d been in his earlier years. That WAR total looks a lot like that of Derek Jeter, who earned 3.3 WAR at ages 37 and 38 with just 15 Batting Runs, benefitting from a 17-run advantage in Positional Runs.

If one doesn’t believe in adjusting for the effects of ballpark and era advantages, Larry Walker was a young Al Kaline, an in-his-prime Stan Musial, and a late-career Honus Wagner. Anyone who’s been paying attention can see that such an assessment oversells Walker’s value. Rather than dismissing those numbers entirely, though, let’s appreciate that Walker was a young Joe Morgan, an in-his-(late-)prime Mickey Mantle, and a late-career Derek Jeter.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Hall Ballot 2014

I’ve put off this wonderfully miserable exercise about as long as I can. The Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the great American institutions, continues to captivate fans like me. Given a different geographic and family life situation, I’d drop everything and visit tomorrow. Once a year, though, the Hall’s management gives the Baseball Writers Association of America the chance to weaken the institution, to pit generations against generations, fans against fans, writers against writers. And I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of complaining about the ten-man voting limit. I’m sick of explaining why I don’t care who used steroids. I’m sick of explaining how much harder it’s gotten to make the Hall of Fame with each passing generation. I’m sick of arguing for context, for ignoring round numbers and considering accomplishments in all facets of the game. But then, I can’t ignore it.

I can’t ignore the opportunity to relive the greatest peak in pitching history- Pedro Martinez’s 1997 and 2003…. or was it Randy Johnson’s 1998 to 2004? I can’t ignore the compelling case of Tim Raines, who’s absolutely deserving of enshrinement, down to his last three years on the ballot, and probably not one of the ten most deserving players this year. I can’t ignore Larry Walker, who somewhat quietly (though he won an MVP and two batting titles) put together one of the great Hall of Fame cases of his generation but might not even get the five percent he needs to stay on the ballot another year.

So here’s my take. Below, I’ll rank every player worth a conversation on this year’s ballot by my assessment of his hallworthiness. If I’ve written extensively about a player in past posts, I’ll keep it brief this year. Numbers in parenthesis are Hall Ratings per Hallofstats.com, where 100 is a borderline Hall of Famer.

1. Barry Bonds (359). I think Barry Bonds was the best baseball player ever. I think the best baseball player ever should be in the Hall of Fame.

2. Roger Clemens (291). In terms of accumulated greatness, read the statements above and replace “player” with “pitcher”.

3. Pedro Martinez (185). Read the statements above and replace “accumulated” with “peak”.

4. Randy Johnson (217). I can’t believe I’m four names deep and still talking about players with legitimate cases as the best ever at what they did. Despite not posting an above-average, full season until age 26 and not emerging as a star until 29, Johnson won more games (303) than all but three lefties since World War II, struck out more batters (4,875) than any pitcher in history except Nolan Ryan, and earned more WAR (104.3) than any southpaw in history except Lefty Grove.  Grove and perhaps Warren Spahn are the Big Unit’s only competitors for the Best Lefty Ever title.

5. Mike Piazza (145). The best-hitting catcher ever. It’s a simple statement with which everyone seems to agree. Why, then, do we have to argue over whether he belongs in a group with Ray Schalk and Ernie Lombardi?

6. Jeff Bagwell (163). The third-best first baseman of the 20th century. It wasn’t a slow century either.  Jim Bottomley and Orlando Cepeda are in the Hall of Fame with a <I>total</I> Hall Rating of 142.

7. Curt Schilling (170). When it comes to the outcomes most within a pitcher’s control, or to postseason domination, there’s been perhaps no one equal to Schilling in the game’s history. If I had a ballot, I might leave him off for personal reasons given all the other worthy players, but he belongs in.

8. Mike Mussina (162). Jack Morris almost got in the Hall last year. Mussina was better by any measure- traditional or sabermetric, qualitative or quantitative.

9. Larry Walker (150). Hallofstats tells us he’s the 59th greatest player ever. Even if park factors are muddling his case and he should be 75th, that’s Barry Larkin/Robin Yount territory.

10. Edgar Martinez (134). It’s excruciating to draw a line here. Edgar hit like an inner-circle Hall of Famer. His time as a designated hitter keeps him off ballots, but if we’re looking at his case objectively, we have to give him some credit for what he could have done as a fielder, right? He was an average third baseman until the Mariners pushed him to first, and later off the field completely. Just a win or two of speculative credit puts him in the Paul Molitor/Frank Thomas “no-doubter” group.  And that still ignores what Edgar could have doen in the majors while he was dominating the Pacific Coast League as a 26-year-old.

11. John Smoltz (135). Smoltz is another guy I think WAR sells short. This has nothing to do with the “versatility” some evaluators like to credit him with because he won a bunch of games and saved a bunch of games. Any elite pitcher could have succeeded in either role. Rather, it’s a reflection of the value Smoltz gave up by pitching out of the bullpen for most of four years.

In 2001, Smoltz was recovering from an injury that cost him the entire 2000 season. It was probably a wise move to stick him in the bullpen and limit his exposure. In 2002, Smoltz led the league in saves and Bobby Cox would have gotten some pushback from management and Braves fans had he moved him back to the rotation. But by 2003, Smoltz was the best reliever in the game, and certainly one of the game’s best pitchers. He struck out 10.2 batters per nine and carried a 1.12 ERA through 64 1/3 innings. For his troubles, he earned 3.3 WAR. Is there any question he could have been worth more as a starter?

Smoltz’s 66.5 pitching WAR are 39th all time among pitchers, between Hall of Famer Vic Willis and near-miss Luis Tiant. Give him 2 more wins in 2003 and 2 more in 2004 and he tops 70, jumping into the top 30 between Hall of Famers Old Hoss Radbourn and Don Sutton.

He’s not a borderline guy. Somehow, though, he might not be in the top ten on this ballot either.

12. Tim Raines (127). A Hall of Famer. I think he’ll see some momentum based on this year’s rule change (10-year ballot limit) and next year’s (12-man ballot limit) and get in before his time runs out.

13. Alan Trammell (141). If Larkin’s in, Trammell should be in. It’s that easy. There’s a strong case he’s in the top ten on this ballot. I can’t argue against it, but I can argue for a few of the guys above.

14. Mark McGwire (123). If you’ve spent any time on this site, you know how I feel about Big Mac and what he meant to me as a baseball fan. He’s a lost cause at this point, so I’ll stop arguing his merits. Here’s hoping Rickey Henderson or Mike Schmidt some other respected Hall of Famer stands on a podium someday and says “I was a great baseball player and I took tons of steroids. They were delicious and they made the game more fun and most of my teammates took them too”. Then voters might stop withholding votes from Bonds and Clemens and McGwire’s induction will eventually follow through some Veterans Committee full of former elite-level juicers.

15. Craig Biggio (126). I hope Biggio gets in this year. He has a sabermetric case and a traditional case. That said, it baffles me that so many voters include him ahead of Walker, Martinez, and Trammell.  Round numbers are pretty, I guess.

16. Sammy Sosa (115). 609 home runs. I don’t care if he played against Little Leaguers, got to hit off a tee while everyone else faced Randy Johnson, poisoned opposing players before games, and killed kittens without remorse. That’s a Hall of Fame number.

17. Gary Sheffield (114). An atrocious outfielder, a likely steroid user and a Hall-of-Fame jerk. That said, the man hit 509 home runs and had a career OPS 40 percent better than league average. He might not even get the five percent he needs to stay on the ballot.

18. Jeff Kent (102). This is the borderline for me. I don’t care if players of Kent’s ilk are in or out, and it doesn’t much matter, since the BBWAA has little interest in reviewing their cases.

19. Fred McGriff (94). Like Kent, McGriff’s induction wouldn’t weaken the Hall by much, but I’m not clamoring for it.

20. Nomar Garciaparra (90). A Hall-of-Fame peak. A legend in Boston. I moved to New England as his star was fading, and was happy to see Orlando Cabrera take his place on the way to a title, but Nomar in his prime puts many Hall of Famers to shame.

21. Brian Giles (97). That 97 means Giles’s numbers, even adjusted for his crazy era, are about as good as the worst guys in the Hall and the best guys out of it. A “big-hall” proponent who thinks the likes of Ron Cey and Jose Cruz (and Bobby Doerr and Tony Perez) are worthy should support Giles’s candidacy.  I’m not feelin’ it, but crazier things have happened.

22. Carlos Delgado (75). Felt more like a Hall of Famer to me than Giles ever did. Perhaps that’s because I was a Blue Jays fan in the ’90s and Delgado hit a ton of home runs and had a social conscience. I hope he gets a few votes.

23. Don Mattingly (77). He might have been better than Delgado- he certainly had a higher peak. In this conversation, it doesn’t matter much.

24. Lee Smith (62). Only “worth a conversation” because he saved a ton of games and voters keep wasting precious ballot spots on him. Great pitcher, maybe better than his Hall Rating, but not a Hall of Famer.

Given a binary “in/out” ballot, as the Baseball Bloggers Alliance used this year, I support the candidacies of the top eighteen players above, though I’m not offended by any argument against Sheffield’s or Kent’s candidacy.

If limited to ten names, I’d vote for Bonds, Clemens, Pedro, Johnson, Piazza, Bagwell, Mussina, Walker, Edgar, and Smoltz.

Posted in Hall of Fame | 1 Comment

World Series Predictions

Every October, I write about how unpredictable the playoffs are and then make playoff predictions.  As a guy with a baseball blog, I feel like I’m shirking some duty if I don’t tell everyone who will listen who I think will win a particular playoff series.

I haven’t read a prediction piece yet that said the Royals would sweep eight games against the A’s, Angels, and Orioles.  I don’t think anyone guessed that Matt Adams would homer against Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner or that Jake Peavy would give up two total runs in his first two playoff starts.  I’m likely to look foolish no matter what I predict, so I might as well make some predictions that will make me look prescient if they somehow come true.  Here we go:

1. Nori Aoki will hit a homer in this series.  Aoki hit one home run in 549 regular-season plate appearances.  Still, Ned Yost starts him in right field every night, squeezing in a few at-bats before replacing him with Jarrod Dyson to form the ultimate outfield.  Aoki’s a career .287 hitter with some patience, and he actually reached double digits in homers his rookie year in Milwaukee, but he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a World Series right fielder.  He’ll surprise us this week.

2. The three-headed monster will give up a homer.  Neither Kelvin Herrera nor Wade Davis gave up a single home run in 2014.  Greg Holland gave up just three.  The even-year Giants will find a way to break through against this trio by the end of the series.

3. Gregor Blanco will put his stamp on one game this series.  We’ve come to expect big things from Posey, Sandoval, and Pence.  Brandon Crawford hit a grand slam in the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh.  Brandon Belt hit the 18th-inning homer that defined the Division Series.  Travis Ishikawa hit the series-ending homer that slayed the cardinals.  Joe Panik has hit .305 with a dinger in the playoffs so far.  Blanco may be the last anonymous starter the Giants have.

4. Someone other than Bumgarner and Shields will pitch the best game of the series.  Madison Bumgarner is clearly the best pitcher in this series, and he’s been hot over the past few months.  James Shields occasionally lives up to the convenient “Big Game” moniker.  Peavy, Hudson, and Vogelsong are all on the wrong side of 30 and far removed from their primes, but the Giants tend to find magic in the postseason.  Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas strike fear in no one, but they’ve been moret han adequate in the playoffs so far.  Yordano Ventura will cross 200 innings for this season in Game Two, a big total for a 23-year-old.  One of these guys will pitch a gem in this series.

5. Jarrod Dyson or Terrance Gore will get caught stealing.  Speed and defense are Kansas City’s game.  Both of these guys should expect multiple pinch running assignments this week.  One of them will blow his big chance.

6. The Giants will win in five games.  I don’t want to pick a winner.  I’m not more of an expert in this than anyone. Since the ALCS ended, I’ve been telling people I’m sick of picking against the Royals, I’m ready to admit they’re really good, and they’re going to win the World Series.  During the empty, baseball-less, five-day void, I’ve been convinced otherwise.  The Giants hit a little better.  Their starting rotation is deeper.  Their bullpen is not much weaker than the Royals’ more celebrated crew.  They’re almost certainly better managed.  It’s an overblown narrative, but Kansas City has been sitting around too long thinking about whether they’re actually as good as they’ve been this month.  The Royals’ run is over.

I hope I’m wrong.

Posted in Giants, Royals | Leave a comment

2014 Stan Musial Awards

Below are my ballots for the Baseball Bloggers Alliance’s Stan Musial Award, which honors the best player in each league. The BBA does not limit this award to position players, but I do, as I’ve already filled out ballots honoring the league’s best pitchers. Clayton Kershaw certainly has an argument as the National League’s best player (I’d probably put him second), but he’ll be awarded for his excellence by both the BBWAA’s Cy Young voters and the BBA’s Walter Johnson voters. Let’s honor some hitters and fielders.

NL Stan Musial Award
1. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers

I’ll let Dave Cameron tell you how Jonathan Lucroy adds wins beyond his WAR by framing pitches well. The truth is, Lucroy doesn’t necessarily need that two-win boost to be recognized as the best player in the National League this year. His 6.3 fWAR were within half a win of Andrew McCutchen’s league-leading total, and he did so as a catcher, a position so demanding that playing the 153 games he played is almost superhuman. He made an excellent pitching staff out of Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Mike Fiers, suggesting that there’s some merit to those pitch-framing numbers. No one person should get the credit for the Brewers surpassing expectations, at least for the season’s first five months, but I’m willing to give the lion’s share of the credit to the guy calling the pitches while batting .300, drawing walks, and bopping 13 homers.

2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Cutch’s OBP (.410) and slugging percentage (.542) were even better than in his MVP campaign last year. He led the league in fWAR despite ugly fielding numbers and would be a perfectly valid MVP, but narrative is not on his side. Even though the Pirates faded during his brief absence and surged to a playoff spot upon his return, it seems like BBWAA voters view him as a defending MVP having a ho-hum season, rather than the breakout superstar he was in 2013.

3. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

His 37 homers probably would have been 40 had he not been hit in the face with a pitch in mid-September. That might have been enough to win his first MVP. Maybe a Musial too.

4. Buster Posey, Giants

Only Stanton and McCutchen had more Win Probability Added than Posey’s 4.81. It’s hard to make a case that he’s more deserving than Lucroy, but he should get a similar catcher bonus.

5. Anthony Rendon, Nationals

Rendon’s 6.6 fWAR put him in a virtual tie at the top. It seems he could have had the breakout-superstar-on-a-playoff-team narrative from which McCutchen benefitted last year, but he still seems to lurk in the shadows in DC, providing value with talent in every facet of the game, rather than one overwhelming skill.

6. Josh Harrison, Pirates

Teammate Russell Martin may be equally deserving, but this is a nod to Harrison’s flexibility. When Pedro Alvarez went down, Harrison moved from the outfield to third base, opening up right field for megaprospect Gregory Polanco, who played well before hitting his first skid. Harrison, meanwhile, batted .315, stole 18 bases, and played great defense wherever he was stationed.

7. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
8. Carlos Gomez, Brewers
9. Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
10. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

AL Stan Musial Award
1. Mike Trout, Angels

I can’t imagine writing this about anyone else, but in the same year Trout will finally win his first MVP award, we finally saw some limits to his talent. Sure, he hit a career-high 36 home runs and drove in a career-high 115 runs, but most of the latter and some of the former can be chalked up to his batting second this season after leading off for most of the last two. He walked far less than last year (11.8% of PAs vs. 15.4%), his OBP plummeting to a career-low .377 after reaching .432 in 2013. He also struck out 45 more times than in either of his first two seasons.

He stole 16 bases in 18 attempts- an impressive ratio, but a modest total compared to the 82 he swiped over his first two full seasons. With added bulk, he seems to have dropped from an elite baserunner to a merely good one (fangraphs tells us his baserunning runs above average have dropped from 12 to 8.1 to 4.8).

The real change in Trout has come on the defensive end. After putting up stunning defensive numbers (13 fielding runs above average), mostly in center field, as a rookie, he came back to earth as a sophomore left fielder (3.3 runs). In 2014, he moved back to center and struggled mightily, compiling 8.4 runs belowaverage. Fielding numbers should not be trusted in small samples, of course, and it’s unlikely that Trout was as bad as his UZR says he was, but the precipitous drop suggests that his 2012 numbers likely overstated his greatness. His four home-run-saving catches that year happened, and he should get credit for that, but how many of those 12 runs saved were based on opportunities that other fielders just don’t get?

If Trout’s true talent is average center field defense, slightly above average baserunning, and a great bat, he’s still an immensely valuable player and might win multiple MVPs over the rest of his career (he’s already won multiple Stan Musial Awards). But that’s the skillset of a 7-to-9-win player, not that of a once-in-a-lifetime 10+-win guy. We shouldn’t be disappointed that Trout is starting to look more like Al Kaline or Carl Yastrzemski than Willie Mays, but that’s how high young Trout pushed the bar.

Hey, at least he’s still far better than any other player in baseball.

2. Michael Brantley, Indians

Brantley very quietly had an MVP-type season, batting .327/.385/.506 with 20 homers and 24 steals.

3. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
4. Josh Donaldson, A’s
5. Alex Gordon, Royals

Gordon and Donaldson have strangely similar profiles. The former third baseman and the current third baseman both played for surprisingly good teams (at least until Oakland’s late-season collapse). They both failed to impress with their newspaper stats (Gordon hit .266 with 19 homers and 74 RBI; Donaldson .255/29/74). But they both walked in more than 10 percent of their plate appearances and played stellar defense (17.9 and 16.7 FRAA, respectively). If we take fangraphs WAR at face value, Gordon was the third-best player in the AL and Donaldson was fourth. There could be some noise in the defensive numbers that buoy their cases, which is why I gave Jose Bautista and his sometimes-lethal defense a slight boost, but these are two excellent all-around players who made decent teams a little better.

6. Jose Abreu, White Sox
7. Adrian Beltre, Rangers

A rookie who broke into the American League with perhaps its best bat and the second-greatest active player in the league, putting up his standard excellent season.

8. Kyle Seager, Mariners

Robinson Cano may get the MVP votes, but Seager is probably the team’s best player. 25 homers and great third-base defense helped as much as anyone in making the Mariners relevant for the first time in over a decade.

9. Victor Martinez, Tigers

Great bat, no glove, horrible baserunning. He might finish second in the MVP voting. He might not be one of the 25 best players in the AL. I’ll take the middle ground.

10. Jose Altuve, Astros

He can’t walk and the numbers don’t like his defense, but he hit .341 and stole 56 bases. One of the reasons the Astros are only a few years from contending.

Posted in Angels, Brewers, Postseason Awards | 1 Comment